June 2020 Competition Winners are: -
Mark O’Reilly of Tayport
Helen Lawrence of Edinburgh
P. J. Stephenson of Switzerland
The door was locked, but I had a key.
“Hello,” I said.
“Don’t hello me!”
“How are you?” I said.
“Don’t how are you me!”
“Are you not pleased to see me?” I said.
“Don’t are you not pleased to see me? me!”
I had a feeling that something was wrong. I put the kettle on and made some tea. I handed her a cup and she flung it against the wall, where it shattered, leaving its brown stain seeping slowly into the others.
“Not thirsty again?” I said.
“Who are you?” she screamed, with her ready wit. She’d always had a sharp sense of humour, and it was interesting to see how she was using it to comment on the vicissitudes of our relationship.
“That’s a good question,” I said.
She picked up a kitchen knife and made a running lunge at me. She was certainly frisky today, but my brown belt in karate must have slipped her mind. I quickly disarmed her without doing either of us the slightest damage.
She leaned against the fridge and trembled.
“If you don’t get out of here I’m going to call the police,” she said.
I felt she was trying to tell me something.
“What do you really mean by that?” I said. “I mean, it would probably do you good if you could analyse your motives for saying it.”
“I brought you some duck eggs,” I said. I know she loves duck eggs, though she never admits it.
“I don’t need any duck eggs,” she said. “Duck eggs are alive with salmonella. And even if they weren’t, they taste awful.
“I know this isn’t easy for you,” I said, “but don’t you think you could speak to me a little more directly? I mean, instead of using duck eggs as metaphors when what you’re really talking about is your feelings for me?”
“I am not using duck eggs as metaphors. I am not discussing my feelings for you, and in any case it was you who brought up the subject of duck eggs in the first place.”
“I was actually talking about duck eggs. I brought you a present, that’s all. You didn’t have to say anything about them, though a little thank you would have been nice.”
“Once more and for the final time, I don’t need or want your duck eggs.”
“Katherine, why are you talking to me like this?
“I’m talking to you like this because out of the two of us I’m the only one who’s sane, and for the forty-fourth time, my name isn’t Katherine, it’s Lorraine.”
I was beginning to understand. This Lorraine that she had become was a kind of avatar. A fantasy that could shield the real Katherine from pain or whatever else she found difficult to deal with in the real world.
“Alright, Katherine,” I said. “Your name’s Lorraine. I’m going to accept that, and I’m going to call you Lorraine from now on, just as if it was really true.”
I hoped she wasn’t going to undergo too many more changes of name in the near future. Even this one was going to be taxing on my memory, but I thought if I made the concession of trying, it might relax her enough to give her a little more confidence in me. And that was obviously the first step on the path back.
“Ok, Lorraine,” I said. “Why don’t we sit down at the table and have a little talk?”
She pushed a chair out for me. I picked it up and sat on it. She sat facing me. Progress.
“Alright Mr Johnson,” she said. “What do you want to talk about?”
“Why are you calling me Mr Johnson?” I said. “There’s no need to stand on ceremony.”
“But Lorraine, my name is Ben.”
“No, Michael, your name is not Ben, your name is Mike Johnson, and Ben…”
“Alright, alright, alright, call me Michael. If it makes you happier, my name is Michael and yours is Lorraine.”
She could call me Beelzebub if it made her happy. I felt that by giving ground on the minor point of names, I might be able to focus her attention more realistically on the major issues. She was Lorraine and I was Michael. I could live with that. At least for the next few minutes.
A phone rang. It was her landline. She made a move as if to answer it, but I put a restraining hand on her arm. She bit it. Wincing with pain, I got up and picked up the receiver.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hello, Ben?” a male voice replied.
“You don’t sound like Ben.”
“Lasagne doesn’t sound like spaghetti,” I said, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not pasta. Who are you, anyway?”
“This is Sam,” he said. “Your brother.”
My brother, indeed! I’d never heard anybody say anything with less conviction. I put the phone down on the impostor.
When I returned to the table, Katherine – that is to say, Lorraine – was sitting at it with her head in her hands.
“What did Sam say?” she asked, without looking up.
“He said he was my brother.”
“But can’t you see?” she said, fixing me with an imploring stare. “He would be your brother if only you weren’t somebody else.”
I was deeply moved by her confusion.
“I think we can work this out,” I said, with, I regret to admit, scarcely any more confidence than the man who had tried to persuade me that I was his brother. I’m not the kind of person to take things too seriously, or to let them get me down, but I must confess that for a moment I felt a twinge of real sadness. The worst of it was that I was still convinced that Katherine had originally invented her Lorraine persona merely to be playful, back in the days when she used to play those lock-changing games while I was out at work. So perhaps the present state of affairs was just an innocent game that had got out of hand. The way to bring Katherine back from her delusional state would surely be to play along with it, to show her I was part of her world, not some external figure of authority.
“We have a problem, don’t we?” I said. “Lorraine.”
“Yes, we have a problem,” she said. She was calmer now, perhaps more resigned.
“You know that I want you – I mean us – to do whatever is necessary to make that situation better just as much as you do, don’t you?”
“I do. Do you?”
“You know I do. What I wonder is whether you do.”
“But I do. That’s what I’ve just said. In fact I’m willing to take whatever measures are necessary to help you recover your self-esteem and your sense of balance. Even if it means doing something that I fundamentally disagree with myself.”
“Are you really willing to do that?”
“I’m really willing to do that.”
Sincerity is one of my talents.
“Ok,” she said. “Here’s what I want you to do right now. I want you to get up, walk to that door, open it, go through it, walk along the corridor until you come to flat number 305, and then I want you to see if there’s any way you can get into that flat without using force. And if you can do that, I want you to stay there all night until you have to go to work again in the morning. Have you got all of that?”
“Ye-es.” I was a little hesitant because although it all sounded very fine and therapeutic – at least for her – I could foresee a certain practical difficulty in gaining access to the home of a complete stranger. However, it was highly improbably that she would follow me out into the corridor, and if she stayed in the flat she would not see where I went after I left, so I would be able to go to a hotel while she thought I was in the next flat. This whole thing was patently absurd, but if it answered her psychological needs, then I was willing to do it. I just hoped it wouldn’t go on too long, if only because hotels are expensive!
“Are you sure that’s what you want me to do?” I said.
“Absolutely,” she said, throwing me a conspiratorial glance.
“Alright, then,“ I said. “Watch me and here I go.”
I got up from the table and moved slowly towards the door, never for a moment taking my eyes off her, just in case she tried any of her little practical jokes like trying to maim me while my back was turned. At last I reached the door. I opened it. And there, standing poised with a key in his hand, was a man I had never seen before.
“Who are you?” I said.
He looked as surprised to see me as I was to see him.
“Ben Somerville,” he said. “I live here. Who are you?”
Another impostor! But just as I was formulating my next utterance, Katherine spoke up.
“It’s alright, Ben,” she said. “Mr Johnson is a neighbour. He just dropped in to ask me about something. He’s going back to his own flat now.”
For a moment I was unsure which of us she was talking to. But just as I happened to glance at her, she gave me a big wink. Complicity. Whatever game she was playing, I was included in it now. So presumably I shouldn’t worry about this tall stranger with his own key. He was just a necessary part of the drama. Probably had his own script to rehearse anyway.
“Goodbye Lorraine,” I said, walking past Mr Johnson into the corridor. He continued to look startled until I was out of sight. I don’t know how he looked after that – he was out of sight too.
I made my way along to number 305, just as Lorraine had suggested. To my relief, I found it was one I had a key to, so perhaps there was more than met the eye in her deluded raving. I inserted the key in the lock and let myself in. I was greeted by an appetising smell from the kitchen.
“That you, Mike?” came a voice, wafting among the savoury odours. “Did you get the duck eggs?”
Sally! Katherine is clever, intriguing, enigmatic – but oh, so neurotic. Sally is dependable, practical, down-to-earth. I love her deeply for those qualities, and I’m glad, on the whole, that I spend more time with her than with the mercurial Katherine. Sally is rock-solid, a bastion of stability. She has only one peculiarity that I cannot account for: she insists on my calling her Katherine.
Hello- Ben? I thought it was you. You look like your profile photo- that’s a relief. Well, yes, I know, but apparently some people use old photos for their profile picture, from when they were much younger- talk about false advertising!
Me? Not that long- about three months so far. It’s weird, isn’t? There used to be such a stigma, but everyone does it these days. My mum just won’t believe me when I tell her that it’s nothing like it used to be in her day, dating agencies, or lonely-hearts ads in the paper. Even young kids and their teens and twenties are doing it now, apparently. What about you- have you had many dates?
REALLY? So I’m your first? Oh God, no pressure then. I’ll try not to put you off too much!
This is a nice place, isn’t it? I have, actually- I came here a couple of times with James - that’s my ex. Have you been here before?
That’s right, secondary school. English. All ages, but mostly the older ones, the 16 to 18 year olds. It’s scary, they look so grown up at that age. Especially the girls- full make-up every day, hair extensions. One of my Sixth Years has even had a boob job!
Well, yes, but we work long hours during term time- we don’t just all knock off at 4 o’clock and go to the pub! There’s marking, and lesson plans, and reports and things like that. But yes, I suppose the holidays ARE good. It always made James really jealous, especially in the summer holidays. He only got four weeks a year, like most people I suppose. However, it’s practically impossible for me to get time off during the term. My best friend had a hen weekend last year- well, long weekend really, they were away for four days- but I had to come back on the Sunday night because I couldn’t get the time off.
You’re in IT aren’t you? Where is it you work? Oh, Bank of Scotland? How funny, James worked for RBS. He was an investment analyst- but I don’t suppose you have much to do with that side of things, do you.
So what are we drinking? I can drink either but prefer red. Is that ok? Something full-bodied- a Malbec maybe? Or a Rioja?
No, not this year. We used to go away in early July before the schools broke up; of course, it’s much more expensive during the school holidays, but we didn’t have a choice. He used to moan about it. All these screaming kids, he used to say. Well, now he can go on holiday whenever he wants.
Mmmm, that’s lovely. I love Spanish wine, don’t you? I know French is supposed to be the best, but I say you should ignore what the experts say, and just drink what you like, don’t you agree?
Well, I wouldn’t say I was well-travelled, exactly. Mostly Europe. I LOVE Greece- we were in Rhodes a couple of years ago, and I’ve been to Corfu a couple of times too. Italy’s lovely too-my sister got married in Sicily, that’s where my profile photo was taken. Sorry? Five, no, six years ago. Actually, it must be seven by now? And James took me to New York for my 30th. It was fantastic; he always said we would go back, but we never did. In fact, I remember once he said….
What’s that? Um, four years- well, nearly, three years and ten months to be exact. How long ago? It’ll be nine months and three weeks on Monday. But why do you want to talk about him? Do I? Sorry, I didn’t mean to! It’s not the best topic for a first date, is it?
This wine really is lovely- can I top you up too? Oh, so it is. You’ve hardly touched yours- would you have preferred white? Get a bottle if you want- we’re bound to get through two.
No, no brothers, it’s just me and my sister. We’re not particularly close, no. We used to get on OK, but James really didn’t like her, so I’ve hardly seen her the past couple of years. She used to say he was overbearing, can you believe that? Just because he was ambitious and knew what he wanted- unlike that spineless husband of hers. Oops, there I go again! What about you- do you have brothers and sisters?
Mhmm, yes. Mhmm Mhmm.
Why yes, I think we ARE ready to order. I’ll have the tomato and feta salad, followed by the lamb- what does that come with? That sounds great, and perhaps some dauphinoise potatoes on the side? Sorry, what was that? Yes, pink in the middle is fine.
That was one thing about James, he couldn’t stand any blood in his meat, everything had to be well done. He was sooooo unadventurous-just about every time we went out for dinner he’d order a burger, or a steak. And as for fish, well….
What was that? Ooh, now, they say you shouldn’t talk about politics on a first date. Well, Labour, actually. Really? Well that’s a relief! No, I can’t say I like him either- very sincere and all that, but simply unelectable. They really need someone charismatic, like Blair- before the Iraq war, obviously! But there doesn’t seem to be anyone like that. No, I didn’t think much of him either- his brother would have been much better.
Well, Remain of course. You too? That’s good, we wouldn’t want to fight on our first date! Just about everyone I know voted Remain, except my parents, and James- he was a Brexiteer, can you believe it? He used to say it was because of the economy, but he was just a teeny tiny bit racist. Used to get annoyed when he saw Polish food in the supermarket shops, and things like that. He claimed to vote Lib Dem, but I always used to say he was a closet Tory….
Thank you, that looks lovely.
Are you ready for a top-up? Good grief, you ARE a slow drinker. Ah well, all the more for me.
Oh, the usual you know. Going to the cinema, reading. I was in a book group for a while, but it was just an excuse to drink wine, really. We used to talk about the book for about five minutes, and then just get smashed. All women, of course. I always thought that more single men should join book groups- it’s mostly women, and they’re all drunk within an hour.
Theatre? Yes, sometimes. What kind? Anything really ….is that bottle finished? Better get another one then. What’s that? Don’t be silly, we’ve only just finished our starters.
Thank you, the lamb is for me. What did you order again? Risotto? Oh well, at least it wasn’t well-done steak!
Now, are you sure you wouldn’t have preferred white wine? If so just get one- I can probably finish this one myself. No? Ok, let me top you up. Oh. Sorry. Well, it’s only a little bit- you can scrape that bit onto your side plate, can’t you?
Mmmmm, this lamb is great. Can you pass the wine? My glass appears to be empty again.
So what university did you say you went to? Hey, same as…..never mind. I went to Glasgow- Edinburgh was a bit too close to home, you know? And everyone I knew was going to Edinburgh, and I didn’t want to hang out with the same people I used to hang out with at home, so I chose somewhere a bit further afield but it’s funny, a lot of people who went to Glasgow University actually come from Glasgow , which is a bit strange, I mean surely the whole point of university, well not the whole point , obviously, studying is important too- can you pass the bottle- but there’s the social aspect as well- but anyway…
What were we just talking about?
Thanks, the lamb was great. Didn’t you like the risotto? You’ve hardly touched it.
Not at the moment, thanks, we’ll just have a bit of a break.
So, you never told me, how long have you been single? Two years? Mhmmm. Mhmmm. And how long were you together? So did you dump her or did she dump you. What d’you mean, it wasn’t as simple as that? A mutual decision? Well, OK, but one person’s always more keen than the other. Did you like her more, or did she like you more? Go on, I won’t tell!
Oh, go on….I bet you liked her more. I don’t know why, just an impression. Did she tell you she wanted to be “just friends?” Cos that’s what he did. “It’s not you it’s me”- he used that one too. Nothing to do with the fact that he’d started SHAGGING SOMEBODY ELSE. A little scrubber from his office. Denied it, of course- I ran into him at a party two weeks later with HER, and he said it was their first date. Really, so how come all your friends know her name, fuckhead? First date my arse. And she wasn’t even that pretty …..
Sorry, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine. Do you have a- thanks. Sorry, I don’t usually cry on the first date, honest. Don’t put out, either, in case you were wondering, well, not usually anyway HAHAHAHAHA!!
No, no dessert for me thanks, I’m stuffed. You have one if you want. No? Coffee? Yes, good idea, let’s have coffee.
Actually, you know what? I think I’ll have an espresso martini. What’s that? What do you mean, do I think I should? Why shouldn’t I? I’m not having a pudding.
So which university did you go to? Did we really? Sorry. Forgot already. Mem’ry like an old fish. Sorry, GOLDFISH, not old fish. HAHAHAHA, old fish! Must remember that one.
Aren’t you going to finish that wine?
Mmm, that was lovely. Do you know, I think I’d rather like another spressomartini.
Oh come on , it’s not that late! And it’s Friday night! Where’s that waiter? You should get one too, they’re lovely.
HELLO! HELLOOOOO….oh, he’s seen us. ‘Scuse me, need to go to the ladies’ for a little tinkly-winkly. When he comes over, can you order me another coffee drinky thingy?
What’s that? Your flatmate’s had an accident? I thought you said you lived alone? Oh, I see, ex-flatmate, and he’s a good friend. Well, I s’pose you’d better go to the hospital then.
Let me give you some….oh, you’ve paid it? Tha’s ve’y kind of you.
No, I’m fine, really, just lost my footing. They shouldn’t have a step there- is ve’y dangerous. Someone’ll have an accident and sue them.
Well James, I’ve had a lovely evening. Wha’s that? Sorry, Ben, of course, Ben, I meant to say Ben. Who the hell’s James, HAHAHAHAHAHA!
So, wannadothisagain? You’ll call me? Ok, triffic.
Wha’s ‘at? Taxi? Yes, good idea, taxi. Feeling a bit tired. Ok, thanks, I’ll take the first one.
Nighty night. Nighty nighty night.
OI! I CAN BLOODY HEAR YOU, YOU KNOW! AND OF COURSE I’M NOT GOING TO THROW UP! BLOODY NERVE!
YOU CAN’T TALK TO ME LIKE THAT, FUCKHEAD! JAMES, SORRY, BEN, DID YOU HEAR WHAT THIS GUY JUST SAID TO ME? ARE YOU JUST GOING TO STAND THERE AND – BEN?
P. J. Stephenson
“Paul and Mary will be here in a minute. What else do I need to do?”
Brian looks up from his chair. I say “his” chair; other people sit in it too. That policeman. The priest. My friend Nancy from the golf club when she came home for coffee the other day. But when we’re alone, Brian always sits there. It’s a perfect location for him. He can peer out through the net curtains to berate the Amazon van driver for parking on the grass curb and crushing the daffodils. He can put his hand on the radiator and tell me if it’s gone off again. And he has the lamp behind him so he can paw over the Daily Mail and tut at the stupidity of politicians, reality TV stars and overpaid footballers.
I push up my hair in a manner my granddaughter once told me looks like a dance move. It comforts me to find the extra spring the hairdresser put in it this morning.
“I don’t know, love,” he says. “You’re always so organized. The food for tonight is defrosting; the bed in the spare room is made up. I’m sure you’ve got everything ready. You’re coping very well.”
“Thank you. It’s not easy.”
“There is one thing though, isn’t there? I think you’re putting it off.”
“Oh, yes. I need to put some towels out for them. Do you mind if I go into the airing cupboard?”
“Of course not. It was only when I used to make wine that you had to be careful.”
“Yes, I remember your demijohns, squeaking all night like little chirping frogs.” I smile at the memory and push the other side of my hair with equally encouraging results. “I’ll do it now then. So we’re ready.”
“That would be best, love.”
I take the long route to the hall, through the dining area and the kitchen. A coffee cup lies unwashed next to a small crumb-filled plate and a Marmite-encrusted knife. I quickly wipe them with a sponge under a tap dribbling tepid water before plopping them on the draining board. Brian wants a dishwasher but they’re expensive and a waste of money when I can do it just as easily myself.
A goldfinch alights on the birdfeeder the other side of the kitchen window. I stand still so as not to scare him and admire the yellow bands on his wings. With his red face he looks as if he’s embarrassed to be seen taking handouts, like Mum was after the war.
Brian appears behind me.
“You love your birds.”
“But best get those towels now. No use putting it off. Paul will be here any minute.”
“I know, love. I’ll do it after I’ve fed the birds.”
I unlock the back door. The air outside is fresh and I pull my cardigan across my chest and slip the wooden button into its frayed hole. Brian’s mud-caked golf shoes sit on the ground beside his golf bag, propped against the folded deckchairs. My back twinges as I bend to burp open the lid of the plastic container and extract a scoop of seeds. As I shuffle over to the bird table and scatter the food, wind and dust make my eyes water.
When I’ve closed the bird food tub, I take a cotton hanky from my pocket and wipe my face. I should clean those muddy golf shoes.
No. Brian’s right. I’d better get the towels first.
In the downstairs hall, the mail lies on the doormat, like waste paper spilled from a bin. I didn’t hear the postman come. I suspect he opens and closes the letterbox quietly these days. He seems less keen to chat than he used to. Another part of my back twinges as I gather the assorted envelopes. Among the lawyers’ bills and the bankers’ correspondence, there’s even a card, the bold, scrawled address on the envelope a taste of the passion-filled text within. Fortified by a couple of sherries tonight, I might have the courage to open it. But for now I just place it with the others in the letter rack by the telephone.
Brian and the kids stare down at me as I climb the stairs and move up through the years. The family holiday to Wales when we got stuck up Snowdon in a storm, relieved faces framed by wet, matted hair happy to be down and eating pie and chips. Sandra with her gown and mortar board. Paul and Mary signing the register, resplendent in black suit and white gown. Brian and me posing in front of a Spanish harbour full of yachts.
I once saw a documentary on the Prime Minister and saw all the portraits along the stairs at Number Ten. I doubt the PM gets tears in his eyes when he goes upstairs to fetch a towel.
Finally I’m standing on the landing outside the airing cupboard. Pulling open the door releases a wave of heat, the familiar warm glow of the water heater and the sickly sweet smell of fabric softener. And, yes, maybe even a faint aroma of long-departed yeast.
The urn is resplendent, resting in the centre of the top shelf on a huge cushion of multi-coloured linen, a throne fit for a king. I pick it up. It’s smooth and hard and heavy in my hands as I place it carefully to one side.
I know Brian’s behind me so I don’t start when he suddenly says, “Be careful, love.”
“I will be, darling.”
I take a towel from the top and pull it out gently, tucking it under my arm. Then my finger traces its way down the pile, like a librarian checking her books, until I find a matching mauve one and gently remove that too. I fold both towels and place them on the stool in the corner of the landing. Then I turn and gently place the urn back in its central spot, all the while scrutinized by my husband.
“Is it OK like that, darling?” I ask.
“That’ll be fine, love.”
I close the airing cupboard door gently and take the towels into the spare room. I refold them and place them neatly on top of the duvet at the bottom of the bed. I straighten the large silver-framed photograph on the dressing table, a portrait of Brian in uniform, handsome with his moustache and longer-than-usual 1980s haircut.
I pick it up, raise it to my face and kiss my husband on the lips.
“You old softie,” says Brian, watching from the doorway.
“I can’t help it,” I say, rubbing the photo with the sleeve of my cardigan and straightening the frame on the dresser.
“Dry your eyes, love. You’ll just have time to redo your make-up and have a cup of tea before they get here.”
I nod and stride with all the energy I can muster along the hall and down the stairs. At the bottom I pause and check my watch.
“I think you’re right. I’ll put the kettle on.”
Water squirts. The button clicks. Two cups clink as I place them on the side and pop a tea bag into each one.
“You’ve done it again,” says Brian.
“Oops. So I have.” I place one cup, still with its tea bag inside, on the windowsill. “I wonder when I’ll stop making tea for you.”
“Probably the same day you finally put my ashes in the memorial garden, love.”
“Yes, I’ll go and talk to them again next week. But I do like having you here with me.”
I go into the living room and perch on the sofa, sipping my tea in silence while watching the street outside. Paul will be here in a minute.
The June 2020 Competition Short List
The China Doll by Jane Langan
First Date by Helen Lawrence
A Haunting Song by J.A.Knight
Duck Eggs by Mark O’Reilly
My Best Girl by Daniel Murphy
Coping by P. J. Stephenson
The June 2020 Competition Long List
The China Doll by Jane Langan
First Date by Helen Lawrence
Paul’s Place by Bethany Wales
A Haunting Song by J.A.Knight
To the Vultures by O McCarthy
There and Back by Ruth Edwardson
Duck Eggs by Mark O’Reilly
My Best Girl by Daniel Murphy
Coping by P. J. Stephenson
The Albatross by Denise Telford